We all know that hocus-pocus is a term used in magician’s patter, the "magic words" that make the trick happen. But where does the term come from?
The term first appears as the name of a juggler or magician in the early 17th century. From John Gee’s New Shreds of the Old Snare, written in 1624:
I alwayes thought they had their rudiments from some iugling Hocas Pocas in a quart pot.
Thomas Ady’s 1656 A Candle In The Dark identifies a particular juggler who used that name and the word in his patter:
I will speak of one man...that went about in King James his time...who called himself, The Kings Majesties most excellent Hocus Pocus, and so was called, because that at the playing of every Trick, he used to say, Hocus pocus, tontus talontus, vade celeriter jubeo, a dark composure of words, to blinde the eyes of the beholders, to make his Trick pass the more currantly without discovery.
The use of hocus-pocus as part of an incantation dates to 1632. From Thomas Randolph’s The Jealous Lovers of that year:
Hocus-pocus, here you shall have me, and there you shall have me!
Some contend that hocus-pocus is a play on the words in the Latin mass hoc est corpus. While this seems very plausible, there is no evidence to support it and the other Latin words in the mass do not match with those given in Ady’s 1656 account of the juggler’s patter:
Accipite, et manducate ex hoc omnes: hoc est enim corpus meum. Simili modo postquam coenatum est, accipiens et hunc praeclarum Calicem in sanctas ac venerabiles manus suas: item tibi gratias agens, bene dixit, deditque discipulis suis. (Take and eat: for this is my body. Similarly, after he had supper, he also took into his holy and venerable hands the good chalice, again giving thanks, he blessed it and gave it to his disciples.)
No counterparts for tontus talontus, vade celeriter jubeo exist. It just doesn’t work.
The idea that hocus pocus has its origins in the Latin mass is first suggested by John Tillotson, Archbishop of Canterbury, in a sermon written sometime before 1694:
In all probability those common juggling words of hocus pocus are nothing else but a corruption of hoc est corpus, by way of ridiculous imitation of the priests of the Church of Rome in their trick of Transubstantiation.
Tillotson’s primary purpose here seems to be in ridiculing the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation rather than providing an accurate etymology. He probably was not the first (and certainly not the last) preacher to use a doubtful or incorrect etymology as a sermon illustration.
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton